Popular Science Monthly/Volume 28/January 1886/Natural Heirship: Or, All the World Akin



THE number of a man's ancestors doubles in every generation as his descent is traced upward. In the first generation he reckons only two ancestors, his father and mother. In the second generation the two are converted into four, since he had two grandfathers and two grandmothers. But each of these four had two parents, and thus in the third generation there are found to be eight ancestors—that is, eight great-grandparents. In the fourth generation the number of ancestors is sixteen; in the fifth, thirty-two; in the sixth, sixty-four; in the seventh, 128. In the tenth it has risen to 1,024; in the twentieth it becomes 1,048,570; in the thirtieth no fewer than 1,073,741,834. To ascend no higher than the twenty-fourth generation we reach the sum of 16,777,216, which is a great deal more than all the inhabitants of Great Britain when that generation was in existence. For, if we reckon a generation at thirty-three years, twenty-four of such will carry us back 792 years, or to a. d. 1093, when William the Conqueror had been sleeping in his grave at Caen only six years, and his son William II, surnamed Rufus, was reigning over the land. At that time the total number of the inhabitants of England could have been little more than two millions, the amount at which it is estimated during the reign of the Conqueror. It was only one eighth of a nineteenth-century man's ancestors if the normal ratio of progression, as just shown by a simple process of arithmetic, had received no check, and if it had not been bounded by the limits of the population of the country. Since the result of the law of progression, had there been room for its expansion, would have been eight times the actual population, by so much the more is it certain that the lines of every Englishman's ancestry run up to every man and every woman in the reign of William I from the king and queen downward, who left descendants in the island, and whose progeny has not died out there. It is a delusion to suppose that one man living seven or eight hundred years ago was one's ancestor to the exclusion of all the rest of the people living at that time in the country, and still having descendants in it. We have sprung from the whole mass; they were all our direct ancestors; we are vitally related to them all, directly descended from them all. Heraldry follows only one line of succession, the line of the eldest surviving son, the line that carries name and title and landed property. It is commonly imagined that one standing in this line of succession is more truly a descendant than other descendants. It is supposed that the eldest sons all the way are more truly descendants than the progeny of younger sons, or the posterity of daughters who have lost the very name. But each line of descent, whether by younger sons or by daughters, is just as real and as close as the one termed lineal agnatic. Every ancestor living 700 years ago has contributed as truly to the vitality of a present representative as the one whose name he bears, and whose peculiarly direct descendant he is considered to be.

It is morally certain, then, that all Englishmen of this generation are descendants of William the Conqueror and of Alfred the Great, and all the nobles of their times whose posterity have not died out. When we read in history of a brave deed done by an Englishman seven centuries since or more, we may say with confidence it was done by one of our fore-elders. And, when we read of one at that distant period who was a dishonor to his country, we may say with certainty he also was one of our ancestors. All the lords, princes, and sovereigns, all the wise and good, the moral and intellectual aristocracy, were our forefathers, and we are their children by direct descent. Equally all the toiling myriads, without distinction of any kind, all the beggars and vagabonds, all the villains and scoundrels, were our forefathers, whoever we may boast ourselves to be, if, indeed, they have left descendants in the land. We are of them, and their blood circulates in our veins.

If the fact of our equal descent from so many ancestors be doubted, let the matter be tested arithmetically within the circle of two or three generations. The grandmother on the mother's side was equally my ancestor with the grandfather on the father's side. She was one of four ancestors that I had in the second generation, and owns a full quarter of me. The great-grandmother on the mother's side is equally an ancestor with the great-grandfather on the father's side. She was one of eight ancestors that I had in the third generation, and claims a full eighth of me. Similarly all standing on the successive steps of genealogical descent, and whose number is seen to be doubled at every step as we rise from the lowest upward, stand on the same level, and have equal claim to ownership in those coming after them.

Some deduction has doubtless to be made from the above rule on account of the recurrence, to a certain extent, of the same lines of descent. Thus, if the father and mother are cousins, their children have only six great-grandparents instead of eight. If the grandfather on the father's side, and the grandfather on the mother's side, were brothers, their lines run up into one house, and not two separate houses according to the common rule. Many lines must thus blend in the course of ages, and the multiplication of distinct ancestors be thus somewhat retarded. But, notwithstanding this deduction, it would require a miracle to prevent the interfusion of the blood of a whole nation within a brief period,

When we have gone back far enough for all the inhabitants of our country to have become related to us as fore-elders, they will be found, as we still travel backward, to go on for the most part intermarrying within the lines of consanguinity as drawn backward from us. The great majority of the marriages will be, of course, between men and women of the same country and the same race, who, by the operation of the law now expounded, have all been ascertained to be our ancestors. The boundaries of a country, especially in an island like ours, resemble the shores of a lake from which there is no outlet, and where the currents must circulate round and round the same basin.

Yet, as the self-contained lake does somehow manage to communicate with the great world of waters outside, as, for instance, by rain and by evaporation, so the multiplication of distinct ancestors, while retarded by nationality, is not arrested. Genealogy has curious means of planting new centers in other lands, and commencing there over again the same rapid ratio of multiplication, till successive nationalities are brought into intimate relationship. Let an ancestor be brought into the English succession from another country, and, since he can be shown to be in the course of a few generations related to all the people of that country, forthwith by his marriage here the whole nation to which he belongs is brought into our succession. One Frenchman embodies in himself, in miniature, all the French people of past times; one negro represents all the race from which he has sprung. Ancestral germs have thus been conveyed across the sea by emigration from France, from Germany, from India, and from the remotest regions to these shores, and by these means all the people of the earth will be found at no very distant period to have been brought into close kinship with us. The Norman conquest brought in all at once a large foreign element, expediting immensely our union with the people of whom they were part. The Danish invasions did the same at an earlier age; the expatriation of the Huguenots the same much later. All the world are found akin, not by going so far back as Adam, or even Noah, but within historical times.

It is often said, respecting a distant relative, "he is a thirty-second cousin." The truth is, perhaps, that he is a second or third cousin. As to thirty-second cousinship, it is startling to find that the whole human race comes within this line of consanguinity. By the ordinary unimpeded ratio at which ancestors multiply, they would amount in the thirty-second generation to 4,294,707,290; and, reckoning for all the checks to this ratio through the blending of lines of ancestry, they must be reasonably estimated at the entire population of the globe—as high, in fact, as they can possibly go. The Caffre and the Hottentot, the Japanese and the Chinese, are doubtless all of them the reader's thirty-second cousins, or nearer.

There is a tendency from many causes for ancestry to diverge and spread itself over an ever-widening area; there is a struggle of the lines to part until universality has been reached, and every human being has come into the succession. Even where a tribal or religious custom mostly confines the marriages of the men in a community to the women of the same community, there are sure to be many exceptions. Jews sometimes marry Gentiles, and set the barrier that interposed between them at defiance. Boaz married Ruth, and she brought into Judah blood mingled of all Moab. When the Quakers made it a rigorous rule that members of the society should marry only with members, gates were hung in the hedge, and the fence itself was often broken through. Proselytes were brought in from the outside; members married non-members at the cost of excommunication. The law itself had eventually to be abrogated.

The tendency to avoid kinship in marriage has helped to increase the divergence of ancestral lines. While a large proportion of the marriages consummated are between persons living in the same district, the population of the district itself is continually undergoing modification—one stream flowing in, another flowing out. No use has been made in this argument of the existence of illegitimacy, and the boundless license of many periods of our national history. Yet doubtless moral transgression has greatly widened the area of relationship, and mingled in an indistinguishable mass the offspring of the rich and poor.

Hitherto we have been looking backward at the historical multiplication of the ancestors of persons now living. If we reverse the process, and apply the law of multiplication to the future, the result is equally startling. The average number of children may be reckoned on a moderate computation at two for every household. According to this average, a man who leaves permanent posterity behind him has the number of his descendants doubled every generation. The two children are followed by four grandchildren; the four grandchildren by eight great-grandchildren. At the twenty-sixth generation the number has swelled to 67,000,024. A few more generations would render them equal to the total number of the inhabitants of the globe. So that, if one could rise from the grave at a period no further removed from us in the future than the Conquest in the past, every person he met in the land, man, woman, or child, if not a mere visitor or recent immigrant, would be one of his descendants. Every one of them would inherit something of his nature. All would be his posterity, one as direct as another. The honorable and the base, the rich and the poor, the talented and the imbecile, would alike belong to his family, now swelled to gigantic proportions through the multiplying power of time. Broadly speaking, all the inhabitants of this country about eight hundred years ago were our fathers and mothers; all the inhabitants of this country about eight hundred years hence will be our children.

The low rate of multiplication just given is often seen to be greatly exceeded. The number of grandchildren and of great grandchildren which some individuals leave behind them at death makes it easy to believe that in a few centuries an entire nation will be their veritable sons and daughters. While I have been writing this paper an old woman has died very near to my residence at the age of ninety-nine, who had thirteen children and one hundred and two grandchildren and great-grandchildren, the latter, so far as known, all living. During the same time that the paper has been in progress, a Spanish gentleman who went out many years ago to America has returned to his own country, bringing back with him no fewer than one hundred and ninety-seven actual descendants.

A single plant, if unresisted by rival plants and unchecked by such things as climate and situation, would speedily cover the whole earth. Man has really no rival, he is lord of all; he can live too in every clime, and obtain a livelihood amid tropical forests and amid eternal snows. The rapidity with which the multiplication of descendants must go forward, even according to the ordinary rate of progression, will in the course of not many generations make the whole world our children, much more if it be expedited. Successive countries will be captured by various avenues and held in perpetual possession by our posterity. The whole caldron of humanity, seething evermore with new creations, will acknowledge the presence of every individual progenitor of this period.

The race is incalculably more than the individual. The peculiarities of the individual are soon melted away in the general stream of humanity. As if his brief sway in the little circle he has filled were viewed with envy or dissatisfaction, the hand of Time begins immediately to pare down what remains of him in the earth to ever smaller dimensions until it is infinitesimal. He can insure only half of himself in any individual of the next generation, only a quarter in the generation after that, and so on. His part in the building up of any human fabric rapidly becomes insignificant. Something seems bent on working him out. As it does with his name and memorials, filling up the lettering on his tombstone with moss, destroying the writing he has left behind, wiping out all traces of him from the earth, so it does with himself and all that vitally represents his personality in the persons of his descendants. The individual is ever losing; the race is ever gaining. A man's great-great-great-grandchild, living scarcely two hundred years after him, will be only one thirty-second part of himself, and the other thirty-one parts will be due to others, that is, to the race viewed as something opposed to his individuality.

The gain in the way of extension compensates for the loss of intension. While a man's part in the individuals descending from him rapidly becomes infinitesimal, the number of individuals in whom he has part rapidly increases until it includes, as we have seen, all the nation and then all the world. This widening out of his personality corresponds to the broadening of intelligence from mere interest in local news to that which is taken in scientific generalizations, and to the tendency of moral development which is to expand the love of family into patriotism, and then to convert patriotism into philanthropy, into a regard for man as man, irrespective of language or nationality. Thus the brook seeks the river, the river the sea, the sea the vast ocean.

Each man's personality, it has to be remembered, is borrowed from those behind him. The further back in time a man's place may be, the fewer ancestors he has behind him; the greater, too, his own part in the race, viewed as a whole existent through the ages, the oftener the infinitesimal re-sowing of him takes place, and the greater becomes the certainty that every separate inhabitant of the earth is one of his descendants. Furthermore, when there are fewer people, the lines of ancestry blend oftener, so that in the same individual it is more probable that an ancestor will be represented many times by means of different channels of descent meeting in him after proceeding from the same source. Posterity, not very remote, will have descended from a common ancestor through several of his children. A progenitor's part who lived three thousand years ago is very much larger than that of one who lived only one hundred or three hundred years ago. He has had more to do in the shaping and molding of the whole, just as the stem has more to do in the formation of the tree than any particular branch proceeding from it. The root or the seed has a still greater part, and, if it be conceded that the human race has proceeded from one common pair, it follows that of the nature of all the individuals now living half is of the proto-father and half of the first mother. To us existing at this late date, it is interesting to note how the channels of vitality, proceeding from the original pair to us, first diverge until they reach their numerical climax, and are coincident for a considerable period with all the inhabitants of the world; then converge until they are found reduced to two again in the household from which we immediately sprang.

As the people at no very distant date in the past were all our fathers and mothers, and the people who will be living not very far distant in the future will be all our sons and daughters, so the people living at the present time are all our near relations. We may call them, with very little exaggeration, brothers and sisters. If we could be told, as we meet the passers in the streets, how near their relationship to us is, we should get a succession of surprises. We should cease to think of them as strangers and aliens, and come to feel that they were our own kith and kin. Every person would have an interest for us as a relative not far removed, and the charm of social life would be wonderfully increased.

The fact of our close kinship, as a nation, and also as a race, is calculated to stimulate philanthropy very powerfully. It is acknowledged that the nearer the relationship the greater is the claim fur help, if help be needed. Even self-love comes to the aid of generosity; it is felt that what a man does for his own relations is in a measure done for himself; the disgrace of neglecting them acts as a useful spur to liberality. Advocates of slavery have vindicated their obnoxious system by maintaining the absolute inferiority of the enslaved. Caste in India has been fortified by notions of a vast and essential difference between the various orders. Oneness in nature appeals for respect and association. The oneness which is proved and emphasized by near relationship makes the strongest appeal to the interest of the mind and the sympathy of the heart. Creatures of the same kind draw together. The further a people are from us, geographically or relatively, the less ordinarily is our regard for their welfare, our concern over their calamities. The improved facilities for intercourse are destroying the effect of geographical distance; the realization of the fact that all the world are near akin will help immensely to lessen the social distance.

The close kinship of mankind especially in the same nation has an important bearing on one or two points of theology. Since mental and physical tendencies are transmissible by hereditary descent, this kinship gives to the doctrine of natural depravity an awful significance, and shows the causes of taint to our blood to be near us in time instead of being removed altogether away to the beginning of the world. If all the moral weaklings of the land who lived seven hundred years ago, all the vile and vicious, all the wild beasts in human shape, and an unknown number of such in the ages intervening, were our direct ancestors, it is not to be wondered at that unhappy propensities stir, and strive, and struggle for mastery in every man's breast. It is singular that orthodox theologians should overlook this recent pressing source of depravity to dwell on the influence upon us of an original pair living before historical times. It is equally strange that unorthodox ones should deny the existence of depravity communicated from that remote period on the ground of its supposed injustice, when it is undeniable that we are reached by ten thousand impure channels so near at hand. The question arises, How is it that the depravity fed from so many sources has not resulted before now in the complete corruption and disintegration of the race? We are able to encourage ourselves by remembering the vast amount of excellency in recent times with which we are in direct communication; the heroes, saints, and martyrs, to say nothing of the hosts of good, plain, practical people of all sorts who have left us a constitutional heritage, We have further encouragement in the law by which successive generations tend to revert to a normal type: peculiarities are got rid of, defects are supplemented, excesses arc restrained; a certain amount of refuse is wrought out and cast aside age after age. The blind man has children with eyes. On the whole, we can not marvel that with such a mongrel ancestry of saints and sinners we manifest such contradictory tendencies, and are such an enigma to ourselves, as if not two men but a thousand were contending within us for the dominion in the changing moods that pass over us, and in the wild, irregular thoughts that shoot through the mind, and try to find their way to the surface to gain their own appropriate expression. That blessing and cursing should proceed from the same lips, that men should come away from prayers at church and get into very unlovely tempers at home, is doubtless very sad, but it is just what might have been expected from those who reckon among their progenitors the evil and the good, the best and the worst, of a whole country.

This doctrine of the close kinship of mankind triumphantly establishes, apart from genealogical tables, the fact that Jesus Christ bad descendants from King David, but impairs the value of the fact when it is established. David, the King of Israel, flourished above a thousand years before Christ, and left behind him many children. The channels of succession being so numerous, and having their fountain-head so far back, had time before the birth of Christ to branch out in every direction, and could not have missed any genuine Jew in the land, especially if he was of the tribe of Judah. Jesus Christ, being of this tribe, was undoubtedly in the succession, and had in him the blood of the son of Jesse. But then was there a man of the tribe of Judah at least who had not? Is there a man living now who has not? Of course the conventional value of Christ's descent by what is termed lineal succession from David, and its value as a fulfillment of prophecy on that ground, are independent of the generalizing proofs which would make out all to be David's children.

The evidence seems conclusive that Mary, the mother of Jesus, had several children after the birth of her illustrious First-born. He had brethren and sisters, and if some of these left posterity in the earth, as we may reasonably suppose they did, it is certain that we are the descendants, the children, of Mary, and have a kinship with Christ, much closer physically than we have dared to believe.

In his case the phrase "Son of man" had a unique significance, but the doctrine which has been expounded in this paper shows that it has a real and solemn significance to whomsoever applied. Each of us is "son of man" in the tremendous sense that he is descended from all the people who have posterity remaining, who lived on earth a few centuries ago. Every individual living before Christ who has descendants at all has them in us. We are the offspring of the whole of humanity at that time. Every slave and every lord in the days of Julius Cæsar has contributed to our being, and, looking back to those times, each one may consider himself not the child of a thin, thread-like line of parentage, but child of the race, son of all mankind.

This subject has important bearings in the political realm. It invalidates the basis of hereditary monarchy, and shows that it rests upon a genealogical fiction. It is a depraved conventionalism, a custom born of falsehood and of wrong to single out the eldest child or any other child as the bearer of the honors and emoluments of the family to the exclusion of the rest. All the children are equally partakers of the parental nature. In the course of less than a thousand years the descendants of an illustrious sovereign get strangely dispersed, and his blood becomes mingled with the common reservoir of national life. Every marriage outside his family runs off with half of what remained of him in the succession. After being halved so often, the wearer of his name and title, the possessor of his power, needs much faith or much ignorance to believe that he is in any real sense the peculiar descendant having a claim in nature beyond millions more. If the sovereign is the descendant of William the Conqueror or of Alfred the Great, so are the subjects. On the ground of hereditary succession every man may claim to be king, and every woman to be queen.

Hereditary aristocratic titles have no foundation in nature. They are based upon deception and injustice, and at best are purely arbitary. The eldest son who takes the title is no more the child than the rest of the children. If any title is inherited it ought to be common to them all, and, if the titular inheritance continued, it would be common to all the population of the land in the course of a few ages. It is restricted to one channel of descent under the delusion that this is more direct and is somehow closer to the founder of the family than other channels. The restriction takes place by means of a wrong done to the rest in excluding them from that which is as much theirs by right of nature as his who actually enjoys it. There could be no hereditary aristocracy save by the ignorance and weakness of the community at large, who tolerate the presence of a few among them flaunting in their eyes and jingling on their ears the tokens of the general deprivation of a natural due.

The doctrine of the close kinship of the nation practically carried out would lead to a universal distribution of property. The verdict of society is that a man who has property should leave it to his children after making due provision for his wife for the remainder of her days. This is the general rule which the common judgment of mankind prescribes, leaving only a small margin for bequests outside the family circle. Entail in its present form and primogeniture are doomed to go, and only wait the hour and the man. Law has already relaxed the grasp of the eldest son on personal estate, and provides for its distribution. In France it compels an equal distribution of real estate among all the children. Taking, then, the broad rule for granted that the possessions of the parents must pass in equal portions to the children, there is seen to be wanted some strict guard on what a man bequeaths 60 that it shall not be squandered by his heirs. We can best follow out the result in regard to possession in land. Entail should be placed on a natural basis and carried out on a broader scale, and it would become a mighty instrument for good and for raising the general condition of the people without taking away the stimulus to labor.

There is provision in nature for the nationalization of the land. As soon as all the direct descendants are treated as heirs, the fact that these rapidly multiply till they are coextensive with the nation shows that, if the property left at death by the present possessors be similarly extended, all the land of the country now in so few hands must eventually come into the possession of the whole nation, and that not by any act of confiscation, but by simply acknowledging fact and doing justice. It would not answer, however, to go on subdividing property endlessly down to yards and inches. A limit would have to be set to subdivision and to inheritance by means of it, and after a certain generation, where the descendants had already become scores or hundreds, or after a certain degree of tenuity in the property had been reached, so that the forfeiture of his share would be no particular loss to the individual heir, it would be necessary to annex the whole to the national estate, swiftly accumulating by similar processes. If this rule were universally acted upon, though a man's descendants would cease, say, m the fourth or fifth generation to be his heirs in particular, the little amount they forfeited in this way would be more than made up to them by the many other inheritances of which they would become heirs in common with the nation. The railways could be passed through the same process by the gradual distribution of shares. As far as practicable other property should be dealt with on the same principle. This would bring about a general diffusion of wealth now congested in a few hands, and bring it about, too, gradually and safely by the operation of the great natural law of heirship through successive generations.

Already we have extensive properties that are owned by the nation at large, such as the roads and canals, the post-offices and telegraphs, the board-schools and the Established Churches, the parks, free libraries, and Government buildings. The principle is in operation, and, if it had the wider sphere that heirship demands, there would be an immense lightening of the burdens which are pressing upon the people. Each individual would commence life at an advantage, a few steps up the ladder instead of being down quite in the ditch, as are the majority—poor and penniless, dependent for everything on the exertions of the present hour. The rent of the national property might, as has been recently advocated, go to the payment of the taxes imperial and local. It might answer for the necessary work of government, for the expenses of army and navy, for the payment of interest on the national debt and its gradual liquidation, for the elementary education of the children, and for the maintenance of the aged. Though I have not read Mr. George's book, I understand that this is something: like his proposal. If the yearly return of the national estate were ever found to far exceed the above requirements, it could be readily and safely disposed of by a yearly dividend, which would reverse the old tormenting order, and make the people the receivers instead of payers of taxes. It is hard to see how this moderate diffusion of property could be injurious to them. If the smaller equal inheritance would degrade them, the present holders of large estates must be in a very bad way.

That which a man has accumulated by his own exertions he has a sort of right to disperse and to squander if he choose; but that which the dead have left behind them should, as far as possible, have permanence stamped upon it, and be guarded by the state, so that it may be enjoyed by all the heirs in their turn. The savings of the present generation should enable the whole community in the next age to start from a higher level of power and comfort. The law of labor can never be abrogated, though its incidence might be very wisely extended. The inequality between the possessions of men can never be totally destroyed, but with immense advantage to the nation it might be decidedly lessened. The progress that has thus far taken place in the condition of the people has been the laying of successive strata of comforts and resources between them and the utter poverty in which their forefathers dwelt. The increase of wages, the lessening of the hours of labor, the manifold fruits of modern inventions, the accumulated treasures of knowledge which all may take without diminishing the store—such instances as these show a gradual enrichment of the people to the general advantage. Who shall say that the process has gone as far as it ought to go? What man could ensue if the present burdens of taxation were done away, and if even every man were the recipient of a yearly income of a few pounds which no act of his could ever alienate?

The landless people of the present generation are undoubtedly proportionate heirs to all the landowners of the country living not many ages ago, if heirship be founded in nature. That all should have gone into so few hands, and the vast majority of the heirs have deen deprived, is a great and grievous wrong. Those who wish to continue the present arrangements, and would bitterly oppose their modification in the way here proposed as an injustice to the few who in future would otherwise come into possession, are willing to inflict injustice upon the many of the future who ought to come into possession.

The great possessions now enjoyed by particular individuals, and that have come down from distant times, are due to accumulated wrongs. One heir in the succession has been advantaged to the exclusion of scores, and eventually of thousands and millions. That which in nature was as much theirs as his is now his alone. That which should have flowed in many channels, shallow, but sufficient to fertilize, has been carried in a single stream, deep and full, but comparatively useless—mostly wasted. Much of the waste is seen clearly and painfully enough in the profuse and extravagant style of living, where one consumes what would decently maintain a thousand. When the properties of the country are thus piled up on a foundation of gigantic wrong, it would be unreasonable to expect a full measure of national health and prosperity, or that it should be really well with the people.—Nineteenth Century.